How to Shift Revenge to Compassion

diane sitting on steps with three kidsI think most everyone would agree we are living in an era of anger and even outrage over perceived and real acts of violence. Accusations are being hurled back and forth among many political sectors, and many are demanding what they call justice – but perhaps it is actually revenge.

Are our children learning our responses?

The events of the world and the ways people respond to those events are opportunities for parents to teach children important lessons about life and why we behave as we do.

These lessons can invite children to become more self-aware and ultimately to have a greater understanding, resulting in compassion rather than a desire for revenge.

Most parents have observed their children wanting to exact revenge on another sibling for something they felt was unfair, mean, hurtful, or done on purpose. “That’s not fair! He did that on purpose!” screams the child who is punching his brother after a toy was broken. Underneath all the accusations and physical outbursts can be the drive to seek revenge.

Revenge is an interesting subject for parents to consider.

A very wise commentator on this is Dr. Sandra Bloom, author of books that highlight her Sanctuary Model (Creating Sanctuary, Destroying Sanctuary and Restoring Sanctuary). In a commentary she wrote in 2001, REFLECTIONS ON THE DESIRE FOR REVENGE she states the following:

…It’s so simple really, the problem of violence; hurt people hurt people. The motivation is revenge, not because human beings are fundamentally evil, but because vengeance is part of the innate survival mechanics of a complex social species.

The desire for vengeance is as old – or older – than humankind and to understand this complex and ancient response, we need to push aside our socially developed notions of revenge and look for its roots. Retaliatory outrage can be traced throughout human history, but we call it a ‘thirst for vengeance.’ The desire for revenge is an evolved outgrowth of our human sense of unsatisfied reciprocity, what today we consider a desire for justice.

What is the antidote for vengeance?

The antidote for the destructive forces of revenge involves becoming more civilized and actually fairer.

Most of the time legitimate reasons underlie even the most heinous behavior and that certainly includes the behaviors of children.

With children, misbehavior often has to do with immaturity, issues around normal impulse control, poor judgment, and natural egocentricity. Parents have opportunities throughout their children’s growing years to help them move away from vengeful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to appreciating the importance of understanding the reasons behind angering behaviors. Parents can encourage children to become more compassionate and willing to find peaceful solutions.

“I know you are really angry at your brother for grabbing your toy and breaking it. Even if it was an accident, that was wrong. He will need to buy you a new toy to replace it. Meanwhile, it is important to focus on being loving towards each other even when we are mad. Together we can find safe and kind ways for making amends…”

Here is a little more food for thought from Dr. Bloom:

However complex the mechanism [of revenge], there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that many abused children will grow up to wreak vengeance on themselves and those around them.

Failures in healthy development may also lead to failure in the ability to successfully evolve a personal system of justice that is fair, meaningful and satisfying. Developmental arrests in the process of developing healthy notions of reciprocal behavior can lead to psychopathological behavior and relationships.

Criminals are trying to exact revenge for past injuries and injustices that have not been rectified. Bullying in a child or an adult is abusive behavior that the bully experiences as justified and right.

Corporal punishment, the deliberate infliction of pain as retaliation for perceived wrongdoing, puts children at risk for engaging in many forms of displaced retaliatory behaviors. Studies of delinquent and prison populations demonstrate the high correlation between criminal behavior and a previous history of childhood abusive behavior.

Are parents exacting revenge on their children?

Parents need to consider any way they may be exacting revenge on their children for perceived, purposeful defiance or other misbehavior. Parents, instead, need to focus on gaining clarity and understanding around probable underlying, legitimate causes for those behaviors.

Once focused, parents can switch their anger and desires for revenge to responses of compassion, empathy and ways to promote real fairness through attending to underlying needs and giving opportunities for making amends.

Seems like there is a lot of work for all of us to do to shift our drive from revenge to compassion and understanding, even as we invite or demand that fair amends be made.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Can you recall a time as a child when you felt someone in your family was extremely unfair? Do you recall wanting to exact revenge for that perceived injustice? How did it finally resolve?
  2. Can you picture ways to encourage your children to switch from “needing” revenge to finding ways to understand and be compassionate while still expecting fair amends be made?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Insititue


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